Monday, May 03, 2010

The Fate of Self-Published Works

I just found out something very disparaging that I would love to have elaborated on by an actual agent. It seems that despite strong sales and critical accolades, agents do not wish to take on books that have previously been self-published. Is that really true? I understand that for ebooks, people who have already purchased will have the initial rights with Amazon, for instance, to re-download, but the book can be pulled by the author at any time. So, why then is self-publishing so taboo instead of being a good test-market of material?

As much as I do not like the notion that this could be true, it does shed some light on why I have received so many agent rejections for a book that has been labelled an inevitable bestseller over and over again. I shudder to think that I have lost all that potential just for taking the bull by the horns and putting it out there on my own, as my only cheerleader in the beginning.

Is there any silver lining or way around it? If I pulled the book and retitled it, would that make a difference?

Well, there is always a silver lining, but with many things in this business these are the exceptions and not the rule. I have two clients, for example, who had previously self-published. Debbie Allen had self-published Confessions of Shameless Self-Promoters. While shopping around her new title Skyrocketing Sales, I received interest from McGraw-Hill in purchasing the rights to Confessions of Shameless Self-Promoters, which we subsequently sold to them. The catch: Confessions of Shameless Self-Promoters had previously sold 25,000 copies as a self-published title. We did also sell Skyrocketing Sales to another publisher.

Bob Phibbs is the Retail Doctor and had also self-published his book and sold roughly 7,500 copies. I liked Bob’s self-published title a lot, but felt there were some things that could be done to make it stronger. So Bob and I agreed that rather than seek a publisher to take over the publishing of that book, we would use it as a starting-off point for a fresh new title that was even stronger. It worked and Wiley is publishing The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business this month.

While 7,500 copies sounds impressive, in truth we ran into pushback from publishers because of those numbers. They weren’t big enough. Bob had self-published his book and got it into some bookstores, but sales were low and, as we’ve discussed before, bookstores will place their orders based on the publishing history of the author. And that’s exactly why self-publishing can make it more difficult for an author to break into a bigger publisher.

When a publisher looks at a previously published author, whether the author was published with a big house or self-published, the first thing they will look at is the author’s sales. If your numbers are low it doesn’t bode well for orders on your next books.

In your case you said that the book has “strong sales” and “critical accolades,” but what does that really mean? Does it mean that Amazon reviewers gave great reviews or that the New York Times raved about it, because it does make a difference. What about strong sales? Are you selling upwards of 10,000 copies or about 250 to people other than family and friends, because, again, it does make a difference. It also makes a difference how fast those sales are made. 10,000 copies is an amazing number, but not if it took you 10 years to sell them.



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Joshua Scheer said...

Great post. I, being unpublished, have never thought about this potential effect of self-publishing. I'll definitely keep all of this in mind. Thanks.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

Quite frankly, if someone has self-published and is actually having good sales and critical acclaim, I have to wonder why they'd bother trying to get an agent for it or get it published through a big house? Why work so hard to lose so much of the profit?

And if the reason is to make more sales, then you're probably not selling high enough to interest either of them anyway.

It's sort of like getting a loan, you have to prove to the bank that you don't need one before they'll give you one. :)

Self-publishing seems to only work very well for non-fiction and highly prolific novelists. :)

Rachelle said...

Great post, Jessica. I'd also like to add, in response to the letter-writer's statement that his book has been labeled an "inevitable bestseller" over and over:

First, there's no such thing as an inevitable bestseller, and authors are really hurting themselves by believing this and building false hope.

Second, people outside the publishing industry most often steer you wrong because they don't know what they're talking about. You'll never hear any publishing insider call any book an inevitable bestseller. You have to take the comments and praise from your family and friends with a big grain of salt.

I think authors have to be really careful when tossing around these terms; they also have to be more realistic when looking at their book. I get the impression this author believes he's losing millions of dollars because an agent or publisher won't look at his book. The truth is, if the book is that good, someone will notice, and like Jessica said, they'll want to work with you even if it's on your next book and not the self-published one.

My two cents.

Anna Banks said...

Thanks for treading cautiously on this one, Jessica. Self-publishing is a temptation to any writer, especially right after a rejection. That it could actually hurt instead of help, and that this is usually the doesn't seem worth the risk.

S.A. Larsenッ said...

This is a great and complex subject, as I've been learning. I recently posted an interview I did with Dianne Salerni where she discusses this issue from a writer's perspective; she's quite honest. Take a look to see what she had to say if you're interested.

Thanks for posting this.

JDuncan said...

From everything I've read, you should be willing to write off mainstream publishers if you're going to self-publish. The odds are so absurdly against you selling enough to warrant their attention, that it makes no sense to pursue self-publishing as a route to get notice.

I'd say it's more likely that you could use strong sales of one book to gain interest in another. Still, I'd say the odds on this are low. If you are selling 7-10k copies through self-publishing though, your profit on that is equivalent to a lot more than that through mainstream publishing. If you could consistently do that and put out 2-3 books a year, you would be doing as well as the typical, successful mid-list author. A LOT more work involved this way. A LOT. I think most hopeful writers don't really get the fact that they are the entire business when self-publishing. Every aspect is on your shoulders, and the simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of writers don't have the skill set, captial, or connections to make this work well.

Yes, the rise of digital books has opened the doors for anyone to publish. Opportunity however, has little to do with potential success. Be, really, really sure about what you are up against if you want to pursue self-publishing. It's so much more than just writing a book and putting it out there for people to buy.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

I actually wrote about this on my own blog. I self-published my first book. Never even went through the submission process. Now I am querying for my second and my past may come back to haunt me.

Nichole Giles said...

Interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

As others have mentioned, I think it all depends on the circumstances. There are certainly models for turning self-published into a traditional publish (The Shack, comes to mind); however, as the response indicates these are exceptional cases.

I think this brings up a valid warning to authors as opposed to saying it can't be done: if you self or ePublish and your book doesn't sale fast and often that story might be dead in terms of future traditional publication.

That being said, I don't see that as having to be be a negative, particularly in the case of a first-timer sans track record. If your sales are strong, and the content is good, you might be able to lure an agent/publisher to take you on so your next story can be published traditionally. Furthermore, there are some authors out there making a solid living off of ePublishing, and that trend will most likely continue to rise in the next few years. Will any of them ever get rich and Oprah famous? Who knows, but how many traditionally published authors get rich and Oprah famous? (Percentage wise, not many.)

Interesting topic for sure. Thanks!

Timothy Fish said...

Based on what I’ve seen, self-publishing won’t kill the career of a good author and a bad author isn’t likely to succeed, not matter what decisions he makes concerning self-publishing. The benefits of self-publishing usually outweigh the risk that people will be turned off by low book sales. Given the number authors who have self-published and then later got a traditional publishing contract, I really don’t think the risk is all that great. I think the biggest problem is that most of the people who self-publish aren’t very good at writing to begin with, then when they are rejected by traditional publishers they assume it is because of their self-publishing attempts rather than because they can’t write.

Janet Morgenstern said...

I do not have the funds to self-publish, so I've never really considered it as an option. The difference in opinion as to whether it is a plus or a minus would probably turn me off if I did have the ability.

Catherine Ryan Howard said...

Personally I think it's a truly bad idea to self-publish your book - especially if it's a novel - only because you want to eventually get it picked up by a traditional publisher. But they ARE benefits to self-publishing other books. For example, while writing my novel I self-published an entirely different book, a travel memoir ( Sales have been good but not anything spectacular, however an agent happened to read it, got in touch and is now representing me (for the novel). I think writers need to think more along these lines - self-publication leading to something better - rather than 'Will my self-published book eventually get picked up?'

Mira said...

My goodness, that's such a dire title. The fate of self-published works. :)

Well......I have conflicting thoughts about this.

If you have a book that's not going to sell - well, it won't sell in mainstream publishing either, and that's a career killer - I've heard. Being a mid-list author can stall your career completely - to the point where people come up with new names in order to sell their works.

For that reason alone, e-publishing has an appeal for me. Why not test out the market first? Of course the market for e-books and the market for brick and mortar are different, but still - it's the best test we've got.

And then royalities are three times higher for e-books, so even if my book doesn't sell well, I still make more money than if my book didn't sell well through traditional publishing.

These are all just thoughts I'm having. The wide distribution through mainstream publishing, and the opportunity to work with some terrific people still lead an appeal to mainstream publishing.

But it's worth thinking about...

Very interesting discussion, Jessica - thank you.

Mira said...

One more thing -

Last week, Jessica, you talked about agents representing for small or medium publishers.

Where are agents on the e-pubishing thing? Have they considered getting involved at the e-publishing level - with the intent to represent for mainstream down the road....I don't know how that would work exactly, but it's just a thought.

Dan Holloway said...

As a self-published author, I have no interest in attracting an agent or a publisher - or I'd be querying, rewriting, requerying, producing another book and querying that, right?

But I do find it fascinating to read this take (and as ever I wonder if it varies from country to country, having heard the opposite from the UK branches of Random House and Harper Collins). The agent-publisher model is very geared to the mainstream, it seems. The thing is, there are lots of small presses who will take submissions direct from the author, and they are gaining more and more critical success (the standout example being Catherine O'Flynn's multiple award-winning What was Lost, published by the tiny Tindal Street), leading to commercial success, and agents are in danger of being cut out of this model altogether (as they are more reluctant than such presses to take self-published books or not obviously commercial books). Which is fine, unless or until the industry's changing model overtakes them.

I'm also fascinated to hear the answer to Mira's question about e-publishing, with more publishers offering e-only deals. It's certainly something for authors of certain kinds of book to bear in mind that increasingly agent-first is NOT the only, or even, possibly, for them, the best way to publication.

Anonymous said...

The self publishing paradigm is changing because the industry is changing and I think some agents have a little catching up to do.

I self-published my novel last fall. I promoted like a crazy person, got a lot of great reviews from book clubs and independent reviewers (no trade coverage), and averaged over 500 kindle sales a month.

An executive editor at a publishing house emailed me expressing interest in my novel. That helped me get an agent and that led to a couple of offers from major publishers.

I think more and more publishers see self-publishing as a proving ground, a way to find market-tested material. And if your book is saleable, gets good reviews, and has some commercial potential, then you stand a much better chance of getting picked up than even a year ago. I think a problem is that some agents don't understand that things have changed. They think publishers are thinking the same old way...and things are a'changin'. If someone is racking up sales on Kindle and you love their book--except for the fact that it's self-published--it might be worth giving it a second look--even without the big numbers. Check publisher's lunch for recent sales from Kindle authors recently. I think there's like 7 or 8 deals, some of them pretty major. Certainly not a lot, but probably more than you'd expect.

I'm proof of it. No 25,000 sales or even 7,500 sales. If you want a big laugh, it's African American women's fiction/chick lit for goodness sake. Should've been dead coming out of the gate. lol

Two offers from two major far.

Things are changing.

steeleweed said...

A lot of people consider themselves 'self-published' when they went with were really vanity presses, POD or otherwise. They were not the publisher, did not own the ISBNs, did not do the layup or cover or interior design. They just uploaded a DOC or PDF and let Xlibris or Lulu or PubAmer or someone else publish them.

One can often self-publish non-fiction quite successfully and profitably.

I will soon self-publish (with Lightning Source doing the actual printing on a POD basis) two volumes of Western history and one of memoirs. These will never sell in large volume but they will sell forever - which is exactly what POD is best at. I will have to market them myself, which is doable.

My late brother and his wife self-published her fantasy novel(?). He knew the book business quite well and they did produce a great product - best paper, great cover-art, good interior design, fine binding.
She had a flair for marketing and lots of contacts in books, art, cultural world, did a lot of talkshows, booksigings, etc. They sold out the first printing, which was probably about 3000, did a second printing,most of which are still in boxes, unsold.

The real edge mainstream publishing has is marketing. As more is done online, the game may change, but that's where is at for now.

Anonymous said...

QUESTION for Bookends:

I sold a novel direct to a small/medium press for an advance; I had no agent. It releases soon.

I would like to sell some foreign rights translation for this book; those rights are owned by my publisher but I get a percentage.

Do agents ever represent foreign or sub-rights only for a book if the traditional rights have already been sold? I guess the query would say something to the effect of, "I'm seeking an agent to represent foreign rights only for my recent release..."

Or is that kind of thing too small-potatoes? Lemme guess: depends on the sales of the recent release?

I can't help but feel that if they're not coming to you, it's just not that big. I the writer has to seek representation, then they don't really need it. Because if the book sells a million copies, then the foreign rights people will come running no matter what you do. So, is it a waste to seek representation for that?

Thanks, great post today and last week, too!

Lisa_Gibson said...

Good information to keep in mind when deciding what route you choose to go as an author.

Zoe Winters said...

I honestly can't believe people are still arguing this issue. There are no sure bets in publishing. There is no SAFETY in publishing. It is all a risk.

But right now we are on the cusp of a major shift in how readers consume content (ebooks), and while we've heard forever about how ebooks were coming and they didn't come, they are here now and they are growing exponentially every year.

The time to ask whether or not you should put a book on the Kindle is past.

The real question now is... Is the book ready to be published in any form? If so, get it out there.

If you can't write and market well enough to do halfway decent, the odds you were ever going to get a trad contract are slim anyway.

The "gold rush" of self-publishing is sort of upon us right now. While people are arguing and waffling over the issue I'm getting my work out there.

I understand trad publishing is a big dream for many, but it's become increasingly irrelevant to me and my happiness as an author.

I wonder how many other people would be much happier if the only people they had to please was themselves and their readers.

Anonymous said...

It costs nothing but time to self-publish digitally. Kindle. Smashwords. (Edit. It's your responsibility.) It's a new world of publishing where those with the whip hand may find fewer people willing to be whipped.

Anonymous said...

Just stay flexible. The idea is to sell books and accumulate readers, not to "get published." Be open to everything, from the traditional ways to the yet-to-be-seen ways and everything in between. Always be writing something new. Get the best deal you can for it, in any medium, with any publisher, and move on. There's no such thing as "this is better than that" it's all just about getting the best deal you can for each project as you continue to write more books.

When the deaal-makers start coming to you instead of the other way around, that's when you need an agent. Until then, it doesn;t really matter what you do except to write and sell more books until such time as they come to you. At that point, you'll still need to write and sell more books. See a pattern here?

Anonymous said...

The real idea should not be just to "sell books," nor (and on this I agree with the above post) to "get published," but to create stories that you love and have that passion flow through to others. Only your love for the craft will keep you going.

I realize that to an unpubbed writer, 'getting published' seems like some holy grail, but in fact it's only an invitation on the expedition to go look for the grail. The real truth of the matter is, that unless you have a smash mega-bestseller, it won't change much for you. Regular people (those outside of writing/publishing) won't think it's anything really special (including friends & family, even if they won't tell you so), because, hey--it's just not that much money! So you have to really love it to keep going long enough to have a real chance of success is my point.

Stephen said...

From previous commentators, I draw these points to which I agree:
1) I think most agents go for the ‘herd mentality of rejection reasons’ when it comes to viewing a self published work because it is hard for them to think out of the formula box of the past, and it requires them to work harder, pushing the boulder up the hill, to overcome a NYC publisher’s mind-set of must-be 100,000 print runs and NY Times and Oprah. And self-publishing means vanity to them, not seeing e-book sales as validation.
2) Self-publishing works best for non-fiction but only if the author is out there as a self-promoter. It does not mean a good marketing author of fiction cannot succeed, only that person must be a tireless over-achiever.
3) Current publishing norms don’t exist today and that is the cause of all the angst of which way to go. The author should not have to wait for the agent to open the right door, because in this market it could be a long wait.

From my personal experience, I wrote the fiction mystery, Vegas Die. Went the agent/rejection route for a year and then went forward on my own. I held some advantage that I had been a magazine publisher for ten years so had a little learning curve experience but it was a whole new world of self-education and reading smart blogs like BookEnds. Also, with fiction, I had to have a better marketing hook to go up against 400,000 books published annually: so I go around hiding murder weapons with clues in the book, so the finder can redeem for a cash prize. The jury is still out if it there is value added for book sales to overcome the $25,000 cash prize. But on the second year anniversary, the mystery, Vegas Die, has sold 10,000 copies. Another marketing trick: the story is written for a regional niche market with a strong tourist base (30 million visitors a year to Vegas) and therefore it will have a longer shelf life. Finally, agents talk about ‘platform’, so instead of Twitter and blogging, I am hosting a once a week book review radio show that also allows my audio version of Vegas Die to be serialized to attract further public interest.

The next niche (Hawaii, again 25 million tourists) with treasure hunt mystery (geo-caching involved) is Captain Cooked, a culinary mystery featuring recipes from the top restaurants on the islands. Had fun doing the research!

Certainly I would want the outstanding agent who signs up the NYC publishing house with their own marketing team, but until then the new maxim might be: when the agents/publishers finally want you they may be running to catch up.

Sheila Deeth said...

Discouraging. I'd heard that self-publishing wouldn't help me get published, but also that agents and publishers want authors to have a "platform" and a single genre, so I decided just to self-publish one genre while trying to make a go of others more traditionally. Still hoping...

Katya said...

Several authors whose books were selling well in the Kindle format have recently received book deals from major publishers...

Kristie Cook said...

Question: Where do the agents and publishers get the sales numbers for a self-published book? The author? Does the author provide financials as proof? Or is there another way to know for sure how many copies have been sold (not just printed)?

Anne Severn Williamson said...

Enjoyed reading all the comments! Much wisdom from such a diverse range of opinions! I self-published my new novel The Holly King, Part I of the First Triad of The Fairy Lore of Ghost Horse Hollow. The book Web site has been visited by 94 nations on seven continents with over 114,000 hits. The Book Trailer on You tube is steadily gaining views (over 1700) under the title Ghost Horse Hollow. The Popular Fantasy is dedicated to world conservation, tolerance, and ending child trafficking within our lifetime. I was motivated to get the novel series off the ground and to trust that it would find a successful pathway in the publishing world. Already, a movie producer has expressed an interest in reading the novel. Our first book signing sold out. I attended the LA Times Festival of Books this past April, and noticed that self-publishing was very attractive for the readers and shoppers. The crowds was just looking for good books! Self-publshing took up an entire corner of the Festival. I invite everyone to visit the Ghost Horse Hollow site where global conservation is combined with a heart-pounding family adventure! In time, I do hope the series will be picked up by a traditional publisher to increase its visibility. I am now beginning to query agents with the second novel, The Snow Feast, but I am proceeding very carefully. Good luck to all the great writers who posted comments! Thank you so much for your information.
Anne Severn Williamson

Sion Smith said...

Surely there are also some other things to take into consideration here. For instance, let's say you got picked up by HarperCollins and released your book into the big wide world... and it didn't sell at all. In my limited experience, this would mean that another publisher would be even less keen to pick you up than if you had self published?

Also - if you have self published and sold 7,500, commercially surely you would actually make more money than sharing your pot of gold with publishers and agents? (I'm not saying this is right but you can see how people may think it is!)

Anonymous said...

I am new I have written a lot of stories but haven't tried to do anything with them because I'm confused on how to go about it. I've read about self publishing. But I haven't read anything about e
publishing or how to go about finding out how to do it? Would someone out there please give me a clue.

Kevin said...

My name is Kelvin L. Singleton, the self published author of It Is Written. I'm going to try a different tactic that may seem to make absolutely no sense because I haven't tried to sell any books yet. Therefore, book sales may just become less of a hinderance. I'm compiling a list of agents and publishing houses that are open to new writers, but I'm going to ambush them with a copy of my novel, and a humble yet bold query letter. What I won't send is an SASE of sufficient size to return to the novel. A rejection letter --yes, but not the book, even if it ends up in the trash. Call it low-tech, low-class, or low-brow Neanderthalic and doomed to fail if you like. You see, having no sales due to life's constant need for adjustment and it's constant demand for attention amidst upheavals actually sounds better than poor sales. It's both good and bad that this market is so competitive that newbees are scarcely given a yawn, but in adversity their is the possibility of both defeat and reward. The artwork, title and subject matter of It Is Written have been carefully woven together to intrigue the unwinable critic's interest. And I've found that white people seem to like reading about the Ku Klux Klan. God, I hope I get a racist. Throughout 2012, It Is Written will be featured and cataloged at book expos in at least 12 foreign contries including the hardest country of all to get into--New York. It's not my goal to fight the sludge by doing it all myself. I haven't written three other completed novels, started two others and written a collection of over 100 poems just to slink off with my tail between my legs. I'm no niave hopeful, however, because my W.E.(Writers Ego) has been sufficiently bled. However, failure is not an option when I plan to start a race war and a new religion With Black Tide Rising. The campaign will begin soon people, and I have honed my craft well. Good Luck to you all.